In his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama had only one significant occasion to use the third person singular. That was when he spoke of education. The sentence was structured so that the word /student/ required a pronoun in agreement with it. Fortunately, he did not use the cumbersome phrase /he or she/ but selected /she/ to ‘agree’ with /student/. I doubt that he (or his writers) are unaware of how to circumvent the awkward /he or she/ conundrum that impedes smoothly spoken (or written) English. It is also possible that the choice of /she/ was intended to play it safe with the politically correct crowd. Even presidents must answer to a higher authority.
I would have much preferred a change of the word /student/ to its plural, thereby achieving gender-free agreement between a plural subject and its corresponding third person plural pronoun. On the surface, my exception to the use of /she/ in this instance may appear to be sexist. It is not. On the contrary. I don’t believe that the time-honored exclusive use of the word /he/ would have been any better. But, if it’s sexist to use /he/ exclusively to stand for both sexes, why is it not sexist to use /she/ exclusively? In deference to unreasonable political correctness, President Obama fell into an avoidable trap.
I am not a grammarian, but there are sounds (and texts) that need not be jarring. Among the worst of these are sentences like, “When a student complains about grammatical rules, you might remind them that many ‘rules’ reflect reality.” The word /student/ describes an individual; /them/ describes two or more individuals. The clash between /student/ and /them/ is jarring. Yet, logic and basic grammar have been sacrificed to accommodate one of the many damaging notions imbedded in political correctness, i.e., reverse roles and you achieve equity.
Tiptoeing around the gender issue also creates logical havoc in a sentence like, “When a student complains about grammatical rules, you might remind them that many basic rules are in place for logical reasons.”
But this blog is not really about grammar or logic. I have a nobler purpose for it. Consider the following sentence: “I’d like him or her to take out his or her book so that he or she might begin his or her lesson.” That is logically, grammatically, and politically correct, but it is also patently absurd. A simple change transforms that sentence to a smooth and reasonable one. Change /him or her/ to /them/; change his or her/ to /their/; change /book/ to /books/; change /he or she/ to /they/; change /his or her/ to /their/; and /lesson/ to /lessons/, and you have a perfectly reasonable sentence: “I’d like them to take out their books so that they might begin their lessons.” Or, if you prefer: “I’d like the students to take out their books so that they might begin their lessons.” The plural shall make you free!
Good speakers avoid the /he or she/ trap as much as possible, but even they struggle to keep up with communication taboos. Terrified by the possibility that they might offend someone as they tiptoe through the minefield of political correctness, they are on constant alert. They guard against members of their audiences who are also constantly alert in their search for a strident ‘gotcha!’ against a speaker who ‘slips.’ It’s enough to make a speaker stammer and stutter. I’ve seen panic in the eyes of speakers who abruptly double-back to correct a ‘slip’: “I wish that he would—er—or she would… .” The faster the pace of speech, the greater the danger of slipping.
Using the plural is one way to get around the awkward and dreaded /he or she/ trap. There is another. That tactic requires more skill than the one described above, but is very useful for sustained use. For example, you are speaking to an audience of men and women. Your concept requires hypothetical examples of what each of them will be required to do at work. You can completely avoid the /he or she/ challenge by ‘sprinkling’ your message with a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ from context to context. For example, “He may prefer to lunch in our cafeteria. She may prefer to lunch at a restaurant.”
However, there is a caveat to the use of this technique. Many politically correct people are consciously or unconsciously sexist. ‘Sprinkling’ a message with one pronoun at a time (he or she) requires skill in distribution. Even if you are a master at it, you can never be sure of the hostility you might spark in a sexist’s selective interpretation of what you are ‘implying’ by using /he/ in some instances but /she/ in others. Objectivity is not a characteristic of partisans. So, you must be sure to establish parity at the beginning of your speech. After a few /he/ and /she/ exchanges, your audience (and you) will relax about potential traps. The same holds true for a Q & A session that may follow.
Languages are largely idiomatic. When Spanish-speaking persons speak or hear the word /padres/, they think both /parents/, not ‘two fathers.’ In context, the plural /padres/ means father and mother. That concept is automatic, even when they are thinking in private.
I spoke a gender language (Sicilian) before I spoke English. That is how I know that Spanish-speaking people exclusively think /mother and father/ when the word padres is used in the context of parents. When I speak Sicilian, Italian, or a bit of Spanish or French, gender languages, I never even think that the words for chair, sky, or truth reflect literal gender or imply gender at all. That is because gender languages randomly and arbitrarily assign masculine, feminine, and (as in German) neuter forms to words. German even has a neuter definite article for the noun /woman/! In Italian slang, there are two principal words for male genitals: one is male, the other female! The word for /radio/ has a feminine definite article and a masculine noun attached to it. There is no reason for that. It just is what it is.
There are even rare instances in which the gender of a noun (and its modifiers) switch from ‘male’ to ‘female’ depending on whether the noun is singular or plural. One might ask, what is it that determines whether a word is masculine or feminine? The answer is: Nothing whatever. Language is a convention, not a social statement.
It is impossible to eradicate the centuries-old convention in gender languages that assign gender to every noun and its ‘agreeing’ gender modifiers. The speakers of those languages in no way think of chairs or apples or stars as male, female, or neuter. Neither did their ancestors. The ‘gender’ for their words, including words for concepts (!), is totally arbitrary and was established randomly as the language grew. In one gender language a specific object is ‘male,’ in another that same object is ‘female,’ in still another, it is ‘neuter.’
Having spoken Sicilian and Italian before I spoke English, I never once thought of objects or concepts as literally male or female. The same was and remains true when ‘he’—in English—is used in the general sense. Centuries ago, a single androgynous pronoun might have been coined for /he and she/. But it wasn’t. It’s a bit late for that now. Old, Middle, and Modern English happened. Modern English excludes virtually all the structural elements of gender languages. Our indeclinable single definite article and the exclusion of noun and adjective gender inflections assured us of an almost perfectly neuter language. In addition to that, current word adjustments occasioned by societal changes suit the language well, e.g., firefighter in place of fireman, salesperson in place of salesman, and so on.
But militant insistence that the generalized ‘he’ is sexist forces us to use the awkward /he or she/ construction or break the logical case consistency for singular and plural words. It hurts my ears when I hear, “If a person wishes to speak English well, they should study hard.” What a price to pay just to avoid the word he! Ironically, because of its emphasis on gender, /he or she/ defeats the very purpose for which it was created. For most of us it draws attention to gender.
It also hurts my ears to hear the word /housewife/. I wonder why dictionaries don’t label that word archaic. I also flinch when I hear chairman when the ‘chairman’ is a woman. Bad habits die hard. Unfortunately, /he or she/ has become a bad habit.
On the light side, it’s interesting to note that when crimes are committed by an unknown assailant, reporters (and others) drop the politically mandatory /he or she/ and virtually always describe the unknown assailant as ‘he.’ When that happens, no one blinks an ear! Most people (including me) don’t mind that at all and don’t ferret words out of context in order to make politically correct points. I don’t think that many people know that Eskimo means ‘eater of raw flesh,’ but neither is any slur intended when the word is used.
A relentlessly sharp eye for sexist words often blurs a partisan’s vision. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard “feminist” partisans assert that the word history is a composite of two words: his and story! I remember a discussion with a lady who told me that the word /history/ is a prime example of sexist bias in our language. She made that statement despite the fact that I had told her I was aware of gender-based words in English and had even provided her with examples of some of them that had never occurred to her.
Believing that the first syllable in the word /history/ is the possessive /his/ in English, she alleged that /history/ means ‘his story’!
As a courtesy to her I suggested that she no longer use the word history at all as an example of gender words in English. I politely explained that the word is derived from the Greek word /Historia/, and means investigation, research, not ‘his story,’ and that the study of history itself originated in Greece. The word /history/ has nothing whatever to do with gender—it never did. In the way of partisans, the lady didn’t believe me!
My seemingly pedantic details about language are as tedious to me as they almost certainly are to you. But since our language has been scrutinized as a significant agent of sexist bias, I think it’s important to recognize that many words considered sexist were once merely a reflection of reality when jobs and professions were exclusively practiced by men.
At the conceptual level, the word /mankind/ is a convention that distinguishes humans from all other species. I don’t think any of us exclude women from a concept that means men, women, and children. Humankind is an option, of course, and a very good one, but /he or she/ is hopelessly awkward.
In the absence of other instances requiring a single gender pronoun in his State of the Union speech, President Obama’s coerced use of the word /she/ is a sad commentary on the fear generated by rigid political correctness.